News Column

John Leguizamo: Actor-writer's newest one-man show follows ups and downs of tortuous career

June 23, 2013

YellowBrix

June 23--John Leguizamo has been a lot of things in a career that dates back three decades -- stand-up comic, TV star, movie actor, and one of the best-known Latino actor-writers today.

But he's also carved out a singular niche as the writer and star of five autobiographical one-man shows. The newest, most confessional and, he says, most gratifying one, "Ghetto Klown," comes to UTEP's Magoffin Auditorium for two performances next weekend.

"This is the hardest piece because it's the most all-inclusive of my life and it's about some harder things that happened to me, like career menopause," Leguizamo said recently from New York. "I always like to go to the hard subjects, give people my soul. It's not an evening of easy laughter."

"Ghetto

Klown" debuted three years ago as "Klass Klown." It chronicles Leguizamo's evolution as a Colombian-born teenager using humor to survive in the tough Queens neighborhood of Jackson Heights. He discovers acting, performing and making movies, but suffers depression, familial conflicts and that "career menopause," a prolonged period in which he walked away from the stage after 2002's "Sexaholix e A Love Story," the fourth one-man show.

"I stopped performing for (nearly) 10 years," he said. "I didn't do anything live. I had like a bad experience and I didn't want to perform anymore, so I didn't."

"Ghetto Klown" grew out of two developments: his 2006 memoir, "Pimps, Hos, Playa Hatas, and All the Rest of My Hollywood Friends: My

Life," and a string of lectures he gave on college campuses in the latter part of the previous decade.

"I missed (performing) a lot," Leguizamo said, "and started going to colleges doing talks. I'd talk about my career, and I had to drink to do it, but I brought my resume and talked about experiences from my resume and the kids dug it."

That turned into "Ghetto Klown," which differed greatly from his other one-man shows --1991's "Mambo Mouth" (in which he played seven different

characters); 1993's "Spic-o-Rama" (which dealt with Latino stereotypes); 1998's "Freak" (about his troubled family life); and 2002's "Sexaholix" (which delved into his love life and becoming a father and husband).

"The show is basically my career trajectory. It's like James Joyce's 'Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,' only this is the artist as a middle-aged man," said the man they call "Johnny Legz," who turns 49 on July 22.

The show includes stories about:

-- What he calls his first public performance -- grabbing a subway conductor's microphone to perform voices, for which he got arrested.

-- Playing a Colombian drug dealer in "Miami Vice."

-- Less-than-flattering stories about actors he's been in movies with, including Al Pacino, Kurt Russell and Steven Seagal.

-- Battles with his father.

-- How he "ran away from theater" and worked his way back onstage.

"You see all those stories of things that were pivotal in my life and shaped me and got me to where I am and took me down at the same time, my own hubris and flaws," Leguizamo said, referring to such flaws as "the things inside that do you in."

The show, directed by fellow actor Fisher Stevens, made it to Broadway in 2011, earning Leguizamo awards from New York's Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle for outstanding solo performance. A documentary, "Tales of a Ghetto Klown," aired last summer on PBS.

"His pliant, expressive face and rubbery limbs are in virtually nonstop motion for two acts and almost two and a half hours," the New York Times wrote, while knocking the show for "traces of flab" in the writing.

"The show does evolve and has been evolving ever since the first day I stepped on Broadway," Leguizamo said. "The songs, dance moves have changed. It's gotten much more streamlined."

"When it comes to gleefully raunchy personal expose, Leguizamo is the gold standard," the San Jose Mercury News wrote after an April performance in San Francisco. "If you are in the mood for uncensored autobiography that hops from gyration to subtext, 'Ghetto Klown' will have you howling."

Local theater director and teacher Hector Serrano has been using Leguizamo's scripts in his El Paso Community College acting classes for the last 10 years.

"All of his books and monologues are really relatable to Mexican-Americans," Serrano said. "They all come from his mind, his soul, his inner being and you know they are all very believable.

"I find my students, when they do tackle one of his monologues, find a lot they can relate to."

Leguizamo, who has Colombian, Puerto Rican, Mexican and Lebanese ancestry, got his start in theater in high school, later studying briefly at New York's Tisch School of the Arts and Long Island University. He left college to pursue a successful stand-up career, which led to roles in TV -- he was a member of the "ER" cast for one season.

He parlayed that into a long string of movie roles, including "Moulin Rouge," "Romeo+Juliet," "Carlito's Way," "Die Hard 2," "Super Mario Bros.," "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar." He provided the voice for Sid, the fast-talking sloth of the four "Ice Age" movies.

He started writing as a stand-up comic, but found that outlet too limiting. He got more serious about it after he started working in performing arts spaces instead of comedy clubs. "That's when I found myself and found my voice," he said.

Working around people like Eric Bogosian, who did "more political stuff that was much edgier," helped Leguizamo learn to tell his story.

"I was a storyteller. I always had a Latin perspective and I could go deeper," he said. "I really enjoyed that, going deeper and edgier about the stuff that mattered to me."

Writing monologues, jokes and characters comes easily, he said, but not the structural side of the craft. "I understood the structure and power of the monologue, going deep into me. From all the acting classes, I knew character and a good line when it came out," he said. "But when I started writing the plays, like with 'Spic-o-Rama,' it took a different part of my brain and the amount of commitment was different."

He seems most proud of "Ghetto Klown," so much so that he'll spend the weekend of his 10th anniversary performing it in El Paso, where he'll be accompanied by his 13-year-old son, Lucas.E

"We'll have a Skype romance," he joked, referring to his second wife, Jennifer Maurer, a costume designer.

Leguizamo hasn't abandoned his film career. He's got two films in the can -- "Kick-Ass 2" (due in August) and "Ride Along" (due January) -- and will play a line cook in Jon Favreau's movie "Chef," which stars Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. It starts filming in July, with a May 2014 release planned.

If there's a message in all the bloodletting packed into "Ghetto Klown," it's that we can learn from our mistakes with humor and humility.

"All the hardships that happen only make us better," Leguizamo said. "No matter how hard, how painful, we still turn to something useful, meaningful and fodder for comedy."

Doug Pullen may be reached at dpullen@elpasotimes.com; 546-6397. Read Pullen My Blog at elpasotimes.com/blogs. Follow him on Twitter @dougpullen and on Facebook at facebook.com/dougpulleneptimes.

Make plans

-- What: John Leguizamo in "Ghetto Klown."

-- When: 8 p.m. June 28-29.

-- Where: UTEP's Magoffin Auditorium.

-- How much: $37 and $42, plus service charges, at the UTEP Ticket Center; through Ticketmaster outlets, ticketmaster.com and 800-745-3000; and at the door (if not sold out).

-- Information: 747-5234, utepspecialevents.com.

-- Note: UTEP's central campus is inaccessible by car because of construction. The closest parking is the Sun Bowl Parking Garage next to the University Bookstore on Sun Bowl Drive.

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